This week I remember a classic in American poetry. Walt Whitman is a name that is almost always in the list of greatest American poets. In fact, in 2006, The Atlantic listed him as "the most influential American poet, without question."
Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855. It was found by many to be obscene, with its direct references to the body, emotions and explicit sexual imagery. It was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement and is truly quintessentially American, as the Atlantic says.
Whitman spent the entire rest of his life adding to and revising the one book. It grew from only 95 pages and 12 poems to over 400 poems through, nominally 9 editions (there is some dispute over whether three of the printings were sufficiently changed from their predecessors to be counted as a new edition). As such scholars can trace Whitman's phases of development and thought by tracing the changes in the editions.
Whitman was a nurse during the Civil War and was strongly affected by what he found in the hospitals and battlefields of that great struggle. He was also a staunch Lincoln man and he wrote a stirring elegy to the fallen President, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd".
The title itself was a pun, leaves being the pages of a book and grass was a term used by publishers of the time for works of little value.
Fortunately for all of us, there are many leaves and they are definitely of great value.
This fine, short novel won the Newbery Award in 1961 and is O'Dell's most recognized work. As with most historical novels it maintains its relevance well.
The novel, like many of O'Dell's stories, is based on actual history, in this case the story of Juana Maria who was stranded on San Nicolas Island from 1835-1853. It is a story that showcases how close to the edge of mortality primitive societies live. It features sharp, painful loss as well as triumph and growth.
The main character, Karana, of necessity, assumes both the traditional roles of men and women. She builds a friendship with a woman who comes to the island with a band of Aleuts, a tribe with whom Karana's tribe had fought. She also finds companionship with the animals of the island, particularly two dogs.
Very well crafted, The Island of the Blue Dolphins is a highly recommended tale of adventure, adversity, resourcefulness and perseverance.
O'Dell was also a runner-up for the Newbery three other times, with The King's Fifth (1966), The Black Pearl (1967), and Sing Down the Moon (1970). I can recommend The King's Fifth from personal experience. All four are available on Biblio for less than $4.00 including shipping.
In honor of Blume's Day (or Blumesday), which, for those of you who don't know, is February 4 in honor of Judy Blume, I thought to Throwback to an arbitrary (by which I mean a list based on the books I read as a tween and remember as an adult) list of the top ten books for teens that might be deemed "classics".
In keeping with our honoree, Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing is still in print, still loved by uncountable kids and leads of to the rest of the "Fudge" series, introducing several memorable characters including Fudge himself and Sheila Tubman.
The Newbery-winning Charlotte's Web is also a book I remember fondly, has been made into a movie and, most importantly, is a book my children read, on their own, and also loved. E.B. White wrote many other things but this is the work he is most remembered for.
Mister God, This is Anna by Fynn is an inspirational and heart-warming tale. It tells of simple, unconditional love and trust and belief.
A Cricket in Times Square is a complex story that includes some of the same themes but also touches on family and responsibility. George Selden mixes a bit of superstition has animals telling the story which is often quite appealing.
Finally, rounding out my short list, is Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Cleary is a master storyteller and anyone who can juxtapose a mouse and a motorcycle in a story for young boys has a winner.
Of course there are many more books that could join the list but the fact that these come so easily to mind some 35-45 years after I first read them means that, for me anyway they fit the term of classic - works to be remembered and cherished from one generation to the next.
Want to mention your particular favorite? Please leave a comment, let us know!
Today would have been Alan Alexander Milne's 136th birthday. Better known as A. A. Milne and best known for his children's character the affable Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh for short, Milne was actually an accomplished writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, as well as plays and newspaper reports. He served in the British military in both World Wars.
Pooh made his first appearance in print in 1924 in the poem "Teddy Bear" in Punch magazine. This poem and many other poems for children were first published in book form later that same year in the collection pictured above, When We Were Very Young. As many of you may know Pooh was Milne's son's teddy bear and most of his friends - Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Tigger - were also young Christopher Robin Milne's stuffed toys.
Pooh's first prose adventures were published in 1926, eponymously. Milne only published two other children's books, one of poetry and one of prose, and he and his son both came to resent the continuing popularity of the stories. Despite this and possibly because the Disney corporation had a stake in the rights to the characters almost from the time of Milne's death, the books and the characters are enduring favorites in England and the United States.
When We Were Very Young is still in print and can be had for as little as $3.94, including shipping, online. A first edition, published by Methuen in London in 1924, can fetch hundreds of dollars.
Me as a critic (be careful! the harshness will be well concealed!)